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The Burdens of Intelligence

Intelligence has downsides, which can be compensated for.

Source: Tej3478, CC 4.0

We tend to think of intelligence as all good. After all, it enables to you learn more quickly, problem-solve more complexly, remember more vividly.

Yet intelligence also imposes burdens on the person:

  • Intelligent people are more aware of a situation's complexities and so are more likely to worry and/or be pessimistic. As Charles Darwin wrote, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." In short, ignorance is bliss.
  • Intelligent people are at risk of appearing "full of themselves." But the alternative is to hide their intelligence. No-win.
  • They're expected to always be intelligent. But even smart people aren't always "on" and then, likely anyone else, they're more mistake-prone. But they and others are particularly hard on them because of the disparity between their usual functioning and their error.
  • Intelligent people are expected to make a big difference in the world. Lest they choose a less ambitious career, they're often denigrated as "not living up to their potential." For example, one of the more intelligent people I knew in high school chose to forgo college in favor of driving an ice cream truck because it constantly gives people pleasure and he enjoyed driving and talking to kids. Also, it avoided his having to go to college, which he perceived as a poor use of his time and money. He read voraciously but only what he was motivated to read. Everyone blamed him for "not living up to his potential."
  • Intelligent people are aware of their high ability. So they tend to rely too much on their own judgment. No matter how intelligent a person is, obtaining outside input often leads to better decisions. So they may end up making worse decisions than do somewhat less intelligent people who are aware of their limitations.
  • Most intelligent people's career and self-esteem are tied to their intelligence. Aging's inevitable cognitive decline tends to especially hurt smart people, practically and psychologically.

Coping with the burdens of intelligence

The good news is that these burdens can be mitigated or compensated for:

  • Fully embrace your intelligence. We live in an era in which egalitarianism rather than exceptionalism is extolled. Your intelligence is a powerful attribute that can be a force for good, even great good. Do consider devoting your smarts to important things.
  • Collaborate with other intelligent people—Your collective effort may be greater than the sum of its parts.
  • If you're more of a solo operator, realize that working alone may yield more benefit than collaborating with lesser lights, where, as mentioned earlier, you may be trapped in the Catch-22 of seeming boastful or dumbing yourself down.
  • Recognize that while cognitive intelligence is correlated with emotional intelligence, the correlation is far from perfect. Use your cognitive intelligence to try to parse out what it takes to influence people and, if you wish, to get them to like you. What are your barriers to connection: Braggadocio? Intolerance of the less intelligent? A substance abuse problem? Inflated confidence?

The takeaway

Might any of the above ideas help you make the most of your intelligence or reduce its burden?

A few months after writing this article, I created a short YouTube video summarizing my current thinking about the burdens of intelligence. HERE is the link.

Dr. Nemko's nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at